What determines how much coverage a climate study gets?
It probably goes without saying that it isn’t strongly related to the quality of the actual science, nor to the clarity of the writing. Appearing in one of the top journals does help (Nature, Science, PNAS and occasionally GRL), though that in itself is no guarantee. Instead, it most often depends on the ‘news’ value of the bottom line. Journalists and editors like stories that surprise, that give something ‘new’ to the subject and are therefore likely to be interesting enough to readers to make them read past the headline. It particularly helps if a new study runs counter to some generally perceived notion (whether that is rooted in fact or not). In such cases, the ‘news peg’ is clear.
And so it was for the Steig et al “Antarctic warming” study that appeared last week. Mainstream media coverage was widespread and generally did a good job of covering the essentials. The most prevalent peg was the fact that the study appeared to reverse the “Antarctic cooling” meme that has been a staple of disinformation efforts for a while now.
It’s worth remembering where that idea actually came from. Back in 2001, Peter Doran and colleagues wrote a paper about the Dry Valleys long term ecosystem responses to climate change, in which they had a section discussing temperature trends over the previous couple of decades (not the 50 years time scale being discussed this week). The “Antarctic cooling” was in their title and (unsurprisingly) dominated the media coverage of their paper as a counterpoint to “global warming”. (By the way, this is a great example to indicate that the biggest bias in the media is towards news, not any particular side of a story). Subsequent work indicated that the polar ozone hole (starting in the early 80s) was having an effect on polar winds and temperature patterns (Thompson and Solomon, 2002; Shindell and Schmidt, 2004), showing clearly that regional climate changes can sometimes be decoupled from the global picture. However, even then both the extent of any cooling and the longer term picture were more difficult to discern due to the sparse nature of the observations in the continental interior. In fact we discussed this way back in one of the first posts on RealClimate back in 2004.
This ambiguity was of course a gift to the propagandists. Thus for years the Doran et al study was trotted out whenever global warming was being questioned. It was of course a classic ‘cherry pick’ – find a region or time period when there is a cooling trend and imply that this contradicts warming trends on global scales over longer time periods. Given a complex dynamic system, such periods and regions will always be found, and so as a tactic it can always be relied on. However, judging from the take-no-prisoners response to the Steig et al paper from the contrarians, this important fact seems to have been forgotten (hey guys, don’t worry you’ll come up with something new soon!).
Actually, some of the pushback has been hilarious. It’s been a great example for showing how incoherent and opportunistic the ‘antis’ really are. Exhibit A is an email (and blog post) sent out by Senator Inhofe’s press staff (i.e. Marc Morano). Within this single email there are misrepresentations, untruths, unashamedly contradictory claims and a couple of absolutely classic quotes. Some highlights:
Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville slams new Antarctic study for using [the] “best estimate of the continent’s temperature”
Perhaps he’d prefer it if they used the worst estimate? ;)
[Update: It should go without saying that this is simply Morano making up stuff and doesn't reflect Christy's actual quotes or thinking. No-one is safe from Morano's misrepresentations!]
[Further update: They've now clarified it. Sigh....]
Morano has his ear to the ground of course, and in his blog piece dramatically highlights the words “estimated” and “deduced” as if that was some sign of nefarious purpose, rather than a fundamental component of scientific investigation.
Internal contradictions are par for the course. Morano has previously been convinced that “… the vast majority of Antarctica has cooled over the past 50 years.”, yet he now approvingly quotes Kevin Trenberth who says “It is hard to make data where none exist.” (It is indeed, which is why you need to combine as much data as you can find in order to produce a synthesis like this study). So which is it? If you think the data are clear enough to demonstrate strong cooling, you can’t also believe there is no data (on this side of the looking glass anyway).
It’s even more humourous, since even the more limited analysis available before this paper showed pretty much the same amount of Antarctic warming. Compare the IPCC report, with the same values from the new analysis (under various assumptions about the methodology).
(The different versions are the full reconstruction, a version that uses detrended satellite data for the co-variance, a version that uses AWS data instead of satelltes and one that use PCA instead of RegEM. All show positive trends over the last 50 years).
Further contradictions abound: Morano, who clearly wants it to have been cooling, hedges his bets with a “Volcano, Not Global Warming Effects, May be Melting an Antarctic Glacier” Hail Mary pass. Good luck with that!
It always helps if you haven’t actually read the study in question. That way you can just make up conclusions:
Scientist adjusts data — presto, Antarctic cooling disappears
Nope. It’s still there (as anyone reading the paper will see) – it’s just put into a larger scale and longer term context (see figure 3b).
Inappropriate personalisation is always good fodder. Many contrarians seemed disappointed that Mike was only the fourth author (the study would have been much easier to demonise if he’d been the lead). Some pretended he was anyway, and just for good measure accused him of being a ‘modeller’ as well (heaven forbid!).
Others also got in on the fun. A chap called Ross Hays posted a letter to Eric on multiple websites and on many comment threads. On Joe D’Aleo’s site, this letter was accompanied with this little bit of snark:
Icecap Note: Ross shown here with Antarctica’s Mount Erebus volcano in the background was a CNN forecast Meteorologist (a student of mine when I was a professor) who has spent numerous years with boots on the ground working for NASA in Antarctica, not sitting at a computer in an ivory tower in Pennsylvania or Washington State
This is meant as a slur against academics of course, but is particularly ironic, since the authors of the paper have collectively spent over 8 seasons on the ice in Antarctica, 6 seasons in Greenland and one on Baffin Island in support of multiple ice coring and climate measurement projects. Hays’ one or two summers there, his personal anecdotes and misreadings of the temperature record, don’t really cut it.
Neither do rather lame attempts to link these results with the evils of “computer modelling”. According to Booker (for it is he!) because a data analysis uses a computer, it must be a computer model – and probably the same one that the “hockey stick” was based on. Bad computer, bad!
The proprietor of the recently named “Best Science Blog”, also had a couple of choice comments:
In my opinion, this press release and subsequent media interviews were done for media attention.
This remarkable conclusion is followed by some conspiratorial gossip implying that a paper that was submitted over a year ago was deliberately timed to coincide with a speech in Congress from Al Gore that was announced last week. Gosh these scientists are good.
All in all, the critical commentary about this paper has been remarkably weak. Time will tell of course – confirming studies from ice cores and independent analyses are already published, with more rumoured to be on their way. In the meantime, floating ice shelves in the region continue to collapse (the Wilkins will be the tenth in the last decade or so) – each of them with their own unique volcano no doubt – and gravity measurements continue to show net ice loss over the Western part of the ice sheet.
Nonetheless, the loss of the Antarctic cooling meme is clearly bothering the contrarians much more than the loss of 10,000 year old ice. The poor level of their response is not surprising, but it does exemplify the tactics of the whole ‘bury ones head in the sand” movement – they’d much rather make noise than actually work out what is happening. It would be nice if this demonstration of intellectual bankruptcy got some media attention itself.
That’s unlikely though. It’s just not news.